Herbert Fromm was one of the most prominent, most prolific, and most widely published composers of synagogue and other serious Jewish music among those German- and Austrian-Jewish musicians who found refuge from the Third Reich in the United States during the 1930s and who became associated principally with the American Reform movement—a circle that also included Isadore Freed (1900–1960), Frederick Piket (1903–1974), Julius Chajes (1910–1985), and Hugo Chaim Adler (1894–1955).
An accomplished organist and conductor as well as a composer, Fromm was born in Kitzingen, Germany, and studied at the State Academy of Music in Munich—with, among others, Paul Hindemith. After a year as conductor of the Civic Opera in Bielefeld, he held a similar post for two years at the opera in Würzburg. After 1933, when Jews were prohibited from participation in German cultural life, he was an active composer and conductor in the Frankfurt am Main section of the Jüdischer Kulturbund in Deutschland, which provided the only permitted artistic opportunities for Jewish musicians during the Nazi era until 1939. It was in that context that he began to employ Jewish themes and texts in his compositions.
Fromm immigrated to the United States in 1937. He assumed the post of organist and music director at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, followed by a similar appointment at Temple Israel in Boston, where he remained until his retirement, in 1972. In 1940 and 1941 he worked once again with Hindemith, privately as well as during summers at Tanglewood, refining his technique and style and developing a highly individualistic approach to music for Jewish worship and music of Jewish expression—judiciously modern, yet imaginatively respectful of tradition and never on the fringe of the avant-garde. In 1945 he won the first Ernest Bloch Award for The Song of Miriam, and he was later awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Lesley College.
Among his large opera of liturgical and liturgically related works are several full services and numerous individual prayer settings—many of which became part of the standard repertoire in Reform synagogues—as well as Judaically based pieces geared for concert performance. Among his outstanding non-synagogal and secular works are Memorial Cantata, The Stranger, three string quartets, a violin sonata, a woodwind quartet, and many songs. Fromm also authored three books: The Key of See, a travel journal; Seven Pockets, a volume of collected writings; and On Jewish Music, from a composer’s viewpoint.
Fromm was known for his insistence on high aesthetic standards and his harsh criticism of the populist trends and the raw, mass-oriented ethnic elements that could be found increasingly in American synagogue music. Composer Samuel Adler, his lifelong friend and colleague, has recalled that it was not so much those musical elements, per se and on their own appropriate turfs, that angered Fromm as it was his view that such adulterated synagogue music “hindered the worshipper from being able to face the highest in life.” And in that context, Adler remembers that Fromm challenged himself and his work with the Hebrew admonition contained in Pirkei avot (Sayings of the Fathers), a part of the Mishna: Da lifnei mi ata omed—“know at all times before Whom you stand.”
By: Neil W. Levin